The hospital we shot in was a real hospital. We had nurses come by who worked there in the '80s and they would burst into tears. It was exactly how they remembered it.
Nina Hoss is one of Germany’s most prized possessions in film. She was named one of the Shooting Stars at the the Berlin Film Festival in 2000. She is a two-time recipient of the Adolf Grimme Award (a prestigious award in German television) and picked up the Silver Bear for Best Actress for her performance in Yella in 2007. Not to be outdone, she was in contention for the Best Actress prize at the European Film Awards for her titular role in Barbara this year against the likes of Kate Winslet. Now she’s about to cross the pond with Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, starring alongside Rachel McAdams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright.
In Barbara, Hoss plays a young doctor in 1980 East Germany who has applied for an exit visa from the GDR and, as punishment, has been transferred from her prestigious post in Berlin to a small pediatric hospital in the country. As her lover from the west carefully plots her escape, Barbara waits patiently and avoids friendships with her colleagues except for Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the hospital’s head physician, who is warmly attentive to her. But even as she finds herself falling for him, Barbara still cannot be sure that Andre isn’t a spy. As her defensive wall slowly starts to crumble, she is eventually forced to make a profound decision about her future.
Barbara will hit select theaters on December 21.
Let’s start with the most obvious question. How did you get into acting? I understand that your mother was an actress as well.
Yes, then she transitioned into directing and directed in theater as well. I was raised in that sort of environment. My focus was primarily on the stage. I always wanted to be on the stage, even when I was 5. I still remember singing on the stage for the first time. I knew that if I sang, danced or acted, it would be on the stage. Throughout my childhood, every Sunday, I was allowed to watch Hollywood movies starring Catherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman… That’s what I grew up on. I enjoyed French cinema, too. I was always attracted to those kinds of movies, but never thought I would be in films myself. It all happened by accident. I wanted to focus on my stage work because it was something that I felt the most passionate about. I was in my first big film when I was 19, but I still went to acting school. The film was very successful in Germany. When I finished acting school, I split my time doing both theater and films.
What was it about theater that was so attractive to you do you think? Do you see theater and film as being very different from one another?
I think the way you get to learn your character is different in theater and film. In theater, you’re in a collective and in this group, you discuss a lot, explore things, and when you go the wrong path you turn around and try something else. You’re always together with your colleagues and in constant discourse. You’re never on your own. You can make mistakes, but no one will see it and it doesn’t matter. It’s so beautiful doing theater because you really find yourself as an actress. I can try things without anyone judging me. You can’t do that with films because you simply don’t have the time. You have to be prepared and sometimes it can be a lonely process before you get onto the set. Another fascinating thing is that you get magical moments when a director calls “Action!” and you have all the freedom in the world. You shoot a scene and you might lose control, but then we have it forever. In theater, you have to play out the same story for 4 weeks and keep finding those moments over and over again. You’re constantly asking, “How did I get there?” but in film, you get it right once and never have to do it again. It’s an amazing thing.
They often say that theater is an actor’s medium whereas film ultimately belongs to its director.
In theater, it really is all about the actors. It’s yours because the director leaves. Whenever I have problems with the decisions that directors make, I can still work on it for myself. If you’re unhappy with something, you can decide to do it differently. But if you’re in a good relationship with a director, you have the same possibilities in film. Maybe it comes with experience, but when I’m unhappy with something, I have to figure out ways to do things differently. It has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t see myself as a fulfiller of what the director thinks I should do. It’s a departure.
Barbara marks your fifth collaboration with Christian [Petzold]. How has that collaborative process evolved over the years? You must see eye-to-eye on many, many things.
When we first met, I was just 22 years old. I was immediately interested in the way he saw things. He was the first director, especially since I was so young back then, who taught me so much about filmmaking. That’s what I wanted to learn. Still to this day, I love being in the editing room and I like seeing the whole process of making a film beginning to end. I’m still learning a lot about it. He was the first one who didn’t think, “Actors don’t have a clue about that.” We found a working language that worked for both of us very quickly. Since we’ve worked together for so long, we trust each other 100% of the time. If I criticize anything or he criticizes anything, it comes from a good place and you’re doing it for the benefit of the other person. You’re not trying to be nasty. It’s a big thing that you’re able to trust each other so much. I love the way he approaches filmmaking. There aren’t many auteurs around anymore. He writes all of his own movies, thinks about them very deeply and creates a protective environment for his actors. Everyone is very responsible in their respective departments on his films. It’s a very special way of working.
The film takes place in 1980 East Germany. When you take on a period piece, does that make the job more difficult for you as an actress?
It’s harder, but also very interesting. You learn so much and I always loved that. It’s also my job to do that. One part of it is the technical preparation. You suddenly have to use these huge syringes that we no longer use in hospitals. It was also heavy to hold. [Laughs] You learn how to handle these things that are foreign to you. I read many books about this time period by big German authors that lived in East Germany. Then we talked a lot and I asked a lot of questions. I have two friends that are from the east. I perform in a former East Berlin theater, so we have people from that generation who were born at the beginning of the GDR and experienced that whole thing. It was important for me to get that atmosphere right. Coming from the west, I never experienced it really. How does it feel when you’re not allowed to talk? Every minute, you’re paranoid that someone’s listening in. Someone could just grab you on the street and say, “I want you to work for me.” I wanted to understand how that must feel. How do people as humans try to escape something like that and make their lives seem worthy? How do you maintain your dignity? That’s basically what Barbara is doing. In the end, she has an option that she never had. The doctor shows her how to live in silence and make the most of her circumstance. Isn’t that maybe more fulfilling than the freedom you seek in the west? I certainly don’t have the answer. It’s a tricky thing. The sentimental side of me wants to believe that it’s possible. That’s the big question the film asks at its core.
Barbara is a complex character. What I found remarkable about your performance is that you’re able to express this quiet confidence without relying on much dialogue.
Since I knew that that was required of me, I had to fully understand her backstory. You see her and you can sense that she has this wall built up and nothing can get to her. I thought that she was once a very lively and positive woman. She had loved her job and something happened, which has a lot to with guilt. That’s the story I had in my mind about her. I pushed her to the point where she can’t do it any longer and she is forced to make a change. She comes to the point where she says, “I won’t allow you to break me no matter what you do to me.” That’s how she finds her dignity. A good example is the use of her makeup. That came out of a story that my mother told me. When she was young in the ’50s, she always wore makeup. In school, her teacher would take an eraser to wipe the board and tell my mother to wipe her makeup off in front of the whole class. She did just that and went to the bathroom and put it back on. I wanted Barbara to wear makeup. It was unusual in those days, in the countryside, to wear makeup. It’s the kind of thing that would make people say, “Who does she think she is?”
It’s a form of rebellion.
Exactly. She shows from the inside and outside that she doesn’t want anything to do with you. She’s telling the world that she’s in a different place. That creates loneliness too, of course. It’s only when she finds this partner, the doctor, that she eases up a little bit. You don’t have to confront this burden all on your own.
Another beautiful element in Barbara is the production design. It’s intricate and fully realized. How does shooting on location affect your performance?
It’s amazing because you feel it and smell it. Acting has so much to do with transporting yourself to another place with your imagination. Kids do that when they’re playing and it’s as simple as that sometimes. If you’re actually there in these historic places, that helps you so much because you can surrender to the space you’re in. I’m sure it does something special to you if it’s not artificial, something created by a studio. You can certainly manage with something that studios create, but it’s a different experience. The hospital we shot in was a real hospital. We had nurses come by who worked there in the ’80s and they would burst into tears. It was exactly how they remembered it.
That must be so surreal to witness. They’re entering a time warp.
That’s exactly what happened. With all the chain-smoking and the children in the hospital, they said that’s exactly what it was like. Everyone smoked back then; the doctors and nurses. It seems crazy to us now, but it’s true. We always felt confident that, yes, we’re doing the right thing here. If you’re from the west, you learn about that atmosphere, but you can find something that resonates.
Has Hollywood come knocking on your door after all of your success?
[Laughs] I just finished a movie with Anton Corbijn called A Most Wanted Man based on a novel by John le Carré. I can’t say that Hollywood called, but it was a great opportunity. I’ve embraced everything that’s happening.